By Carter B. Horsley
Collecting art is one of the great passions
in life, an obsessive pursuit of objects that strike one's fancy,
a tickling sensation of possession, lust, control, and fantasy.
It has many spurs: social acceptance, snobbery,
elitism, tradition, curiosity, greed, inadequacy, fulfillment,
competition, education, homage, veneration.
It provides the trappings of power. It is exciting
and tempting and dangerous. It is elusive, adventurous and bold.
It is satisfying, but it also brings responsibility to preserve
It is the cherishing of the tangible in order
to try to understand the intangible.
It is an alliance with the art's creator. It
is a part of the continuum of the object's history.
It is respectful. It is not reasonable.
It is exciting. It is ennobling. It is expensive.
It is extravagant.
It is studious and it is sinful.
It is pious and it is painful.
It is not for everyone and it is never-ending.
As Michael Kimmelman noted in his Oct. 3, 1997,
review in The New York Times of this exhibition of the private
art collection of Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas 1834-1917):
"It's important to recall that aside from
a few examples like Ingres's portraits of the LeBlancs (and Courbet's
"Studio," which he tried unsuccessfully to get), Degas
didn't really acquire the greatest works by artists but instead
the ones that meant something particular to him, which, after
all, is the right way to collect. He bought art because it was
his instructor and companion, and he brought to collecting an
engagement, even a passion, that should cause people to think
twice about the common gripe that he is a chilly artist."
The handsome and excellent Degas exhibition
at the Metropolitan is as fascinating for what it contains and
reveals about the collector and for what it does not contain.
The exhibition is a larger version of one held at the National
Gallery of Art in London recently.
Degas came from an upper-middle-class background
as his father was a banker, and he became successful enough in
his later years to go rummaging at art galleries and auction houses
for additions to his private collection.
By world-class standards, it contained, at
his death, a dozen or so stunning masterpieces by other artists
and half a dozen of his own finest paintings.
The best painting in the show is a bright,
small still life by Vincent Van Gogh, shown above, that is dazzling
and now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The second finest work is a sensational, small
portrait of Vincent Choquet, a prominent collector, by Paul Cezanne,
that is now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Art and
was formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.
The exhibit, sponsored by Texaco, Inc., would
be worth visiting just to see these two gems.
Only slightly less impressive are Honoré
Daumier's "Don Quixote Reading," now at the National
Museum and Gallery in Cardiff; major works by Paul Gauguin, "Day
of the God," now at the Art Institute of Chicago, "Woman
of the Mango," now in the Baltimore Museum of Art and formerly
in the Cone Collection, and "A Vase of Flowers," from
the National Gallery in London; Manet's "Gypsy with Cigarette,"
at the Art Museum at Princeton University, and "Berthe Morisot
in Mourning," now in a private collection; Cezanne's "Apples,"
now in the collection of the FitzWilliam Museum at King's College
in Cambridge, England, and "Self-Portrait," in the Oskar
Reinhardt Collection in Winterthur, Switzerland; Jean-Auguste-Dominique
Ingres's "Amédéé-David, the Marquis
de Pastoret," from the Art Institute in Chicago, and "Roger
Freeing Angelica," now at the National Gallery in London;
and El Greco's, "Saint Idlefonso," now at the National
Gallery of Art in Washington and formerly in the Andrew Mellon
Degas is well represented by his own "The
Millinery Shop," now at the Art Institute in Chicago and
arguably his best painting, "Interior," also known as
"The Rape," now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a
provocative, mysterious albeit academic work, "Violinist
and Young Woman Holding Sheet Music," now at the Detroit
Institute of Art, a superb painting, "Monsieur and Madame
Edmondo Morbili," a mesmerizing portrait work now at the
Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the luscious, large and formal
"Family Portrait," also called "The Bellelli Family,"
a work now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and a detail of
which graces the cover of the show's catalogue, and the large
and luminous "Mademoiselle Fiocre in the Ballet 'The Source,'"
from the Brooklyn Museum.
Surprisingly, however, his rather nationalistic
collection of other artists did not include Monet, or Seurat,
or Lautrec, or the work of the Nabis and Fauves, or lesser but
important artists such as Charles Daubigny, and his own famous
series of ballet dancers and laundresses is not well represented.
Degas' collection is dominated mainly by extensive
holdings of works by Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, Daumier and Paul
Gavarni, the caricaturist, and unlike most collectors he did not
concentrate only on paintings, or drawings, or prints, but divided
his interests almost equally.
Degas began collecting seriously late in his
life, and most of his acquisitions were around the turn of the
century. For a number of years, he contemplated creating a public
museum of his collection, but eventually abandoned the idea. The
extent of his collecting, several thousand works, was not generally
known and his collection not only was not accessible to the public,
but was also kept mostly in boxes in his "ramshackle"
three-story apartment/studio on the edge of Montmartre in Paris.
The collection, totaling almost 8,000 items, was sold at 8 auctions
in 1918 and 1919, and the auctions, actually interrupted by nearby
bombing by Germans, were a major "art event" of the
World War I period in Paris. Degas died in September, 1917.
Although he helped organized and participated
in the major Impressionist exhibitions, Degas was separate from
them in temperament and style, preferring the urban to the rural
and line to the Impressionist blur. His major teacher had been
a student of Ingres, the great NeoClassicist and draftsman and
Degas revered him highly. Ingres, however, was challenged by the
bravura emphasis on color and Romanticism of Delacroix, whom Degas
also grew to worship. While one is tempted to say that Degas sought
to synthesize the competing ideals of line and color, it may be
sufficient to say that his maturing taste was alert to change
and experimentation and that his work, while inconsistent in adherence
to such principles, is resonant with both traditions. Indeed,
his preoccupation with studies belies the final conveyance of
spontaneity in some of his works. His ballet pictures celebrate
line, but his landscapes are awash in color. His great portraits
are assured lines set softly in contrast to Ingres's brilliant
but often stark images.
Degas clearly was able to merge different influences
and Manet is one of the most important as is the poetic side of
Corot, who was not well represented in his collection.
The essays, by Ann Dumas, guest curator, Colta
Ives, curator of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan, Susan
Alyson Stein, associate curator of European paintings at the museum,
and Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Curator of European Paintings at
the museum, in the excellent catalogue ($60 hardcover and $45
soft-cover) provide the necessary historical insights into 19th
Century collecting and Degas' relationships with other artists.
One wishes that a bit of the thorough academic history and research
had been sacrificed for more commentary on the art itself, but
it is an illuminating and fine catalogue that is a worthy addition
to any library.
Degas, who never married and who fell out of
favor with many friends for anti-Semitism after the Dreyfus affair,
"lived modestly, even frugally, keeping his house keeper
on a tight budget," Ann Dumas writes in one of her catalogue
essays, adding that "Degas spent little on personal comfort,
reserving all his money for his collecting." His father,
Hilaire de Gas, had become a successful banker in Naples where
he went as a refugee after the French Revolution and had a modest
art collection, some of which his son inherited and kept. One
glass case in the artist's apartment, according to Dumas, contained
"an album of prints by Utamaro and other Japanese artists
displayed with the casts of the hands of Javanese women, a plaster
cast of Ingres's hand holding a pencil, and some Neapolitan dolls."
As is the case with most collectors, emotions
rule. At one auction, Degas apparently outbid himself only to
be saved by an honest auctioneer. Dumas relates that a prominent
dealer told the story about a leading expert on prints asking
Degas for a photograph of a lithograph by Delacroix in his collection
and being told by Degas, "I've waited twenty years for that
Delacroix. Let others do the same."
To a great extent, his was a working, study
collection and when it came to his idols, like Ingres, if he could
not obtain the original, he would "make up the deficit with
photographs," observed Dumas.
As a typical serious collector, he was concerned
about proper conservation and restoration. "Yet this concern
did not always prevent Degas from making mistakes in his own collection;
in his inventory he bitterly regretted "the too-hard lesson"
of having too much varnish removed from one of his favorite Ingres
paintings, Robert Freeing Angelica," Dumas noted,
adding that it was a painting he had copied years before he had
His abandonment of the plan for a Musée
Degas, Dumas suggests, might have stemmed from a disenchantment
with the administrative problems of establishment such a venture,
similar to those that were associated with the gift of painter
Gustave Caillebotte's collection to the Musée du Luxembourg
in Paris in 1897, "an establishment he despised as a vehicle
of the state." Collectors, after all, are temperamental,
egotistic and onery, as most museum directors and curators know.
The catalogue documents other new museums created
by Léon Bonnat and Gustav Moreau and Dumas surmises that
"For Degas, the overriding interest lay in extending the
collection rather than in planning a permanent home for it, a
situation analogous to his well-known difficulty in ever reaching
the point of considering a work finished. What excited Degas was
the thrill of the search and the beauty of the objects he found."
Like all collectors, Degas made some mistakes:
"Degas's one landscape by [Theodore] Rousseau, the preeminent
Barbizon painter - a barren, mountainous view, The Valley of
.was bought by mistake; seeing it from
the back of the salesroom, Degas thought it was a Corot,"
Paintings are outnumbered by drawings and prints
in the exhibition, reflecting perhaps Degas's remark that "If
I had to live my life again, I would work only in black and white."
Thankfully, that was not the case, although his black-and-white
career was marked by innovation and high quality.
Some observers have harped on the fact that
Degas, never married, was too detached and, despite his warm pastels,
Near the end of his life, his eyesight was
failing, but one feels that his intellectual and artistic quests
never quit. The bulk of his "art" collection consisted
of studies. That is what art is really about: studying, learning,
trying to understand, trying to render, trying to create. It is
very easy for the casual viewer, to look at a painting and say,
"wow," "great," "good," or "weak,"
or "why?" A work of art should stand on its own, without
labels, without the pretence of a great gallery, a fabulous provenance,
a distinguished literature. It should be an invitation to appreciate
an artist's intent, struggle and victory in "getting it out,"
in transcending the privacy of his personal reactions, impressions,
sensitivities and spewing out his communication, statement, whimsy.
This is a serious, fine exhibition that the
museum should be proud of as it stimulates examination of cross-fertilizations,
inspirations, obsessions, ideals, follies, and loves.
What would Degas be painting today and whom
would he invite to see his latest acquisitions?